The Oregon State Beavers will open up their highly anticipated 2013 season and defend their national ranking against FCS foe Eastern Washington at Reser Stadium.
The Eagles were one of the better teams in the FCS last season and enter this campaign ranked No. 4 in The Sports Network FCS Top 25 poll. The Eagles are also just a few years removed from a national championship in 2010. Eastern Washington was defeated, 24-20, by Washington State, another Pac-12 program, last season and with 13 returning starters, hopes to exact some revenge on the conference this time around.
"I love being in those environments competing, fighting and putting it all out there," Eastern Washington head coach Beau Baldwin said. "Our players love it. They want to show that they are right there with them."
Last year at this time Oregon State was nowhere near the Top 25 as the Beavers entered the campaign off a 3-9 effort in 2011. However with a 6-0 start to the season the Beavers rose as high as No. 7 in the Top 25 and despite stumbling down the stretch, finished 9-4. That was the best record for Oregon State since 2008 and the six-win improvement was the largest in program history.
There are still lingering doubts about the Beavers though. The thought is that they are more in line with the team that went 3-4 down the stretch, than the team that ripped off six straight wins to open the year. Head coach Mike Riley preaches against complacency.
"The one thing I've tried to reinforce is there are no accidents in this thing," Riley said. "You've got to go earn everything you're going to get. Just because of what the team last year did, there's no guarantees about that."
These two Pacific Northwest teams have met just twice before. Oregon State has won both contests including a 56-17 rout in 2006.
Though their numbers obviously need to be taken with some reservations entering this contest, the Eagles were a team that posted big numbers on offense last season. Eastern Washington scored 33.7 points per game and racked up more than 440 yards of total offense on average.
Quarterback Vernon Adams is a talented player that will finally have the job to himself. Last season he split time with Kyle Padron, but with Padron having moved on, Adams has the chance to show what he is capable of. Expectations are high, as Adams completed 60.9 percent of his pass attempts last season for 1,961 yards and 20 touchdowns, while adding 342 yards on the ground.
Adams will need to gel with a largely new receiving corps as many of the top options from last season, especially Brandon Kaufman (93 receptions, 1,850 yards, 16 TD), won't be running routes this year. Ashton Clark (49 receptions, 650 yards, five TD) should step in as the go-to target.
The Eagles are pretty solid at running back which should alleviate some of the pressure off Adams and the passing game. Quincy Forte rushed for 597 yards and a pair of scores last season as the team's leading rusher. He will be back as will short-yardage specialist Demitrius Bronson, who averaged 3.6 yards per carry but scored a team-high 11 touchdowns.
Eastern Washington's success last season wasn't strictly on offense. The Eagles allowed just 25.4 points per game, though they were lit up for more than 400 yards per game. As a team the Eagles did record 36 sacks and forced 29 turnovers.
Tackle machine Ronnie Hamlin is back to lead the unit at linebacker. Hamlin had 136 tackles last season, 13 of which went for loss. He also forced a pair of fumbles and recorded a pair of interceptions. Cody McCarthy (47 tackles) and J.C. Agen will line up at linebacker as well.
There are four other returning starters for the Eagles on defense with Andru Pulu filling in at defensive tackle and safety Allen Brown (91 tackles) and cornerbacks Ronald Baines and T.J. Lee anchoring the secondary.
After going back and forth between Sean Mannion and Cody Vaz during much of last season it is no real surprise that Riley waited so long to pick his starting quarterback for week one. It came out this week that Mannion will get the nod to begin the campaign.
Mannion was a more accurate passer than Vaz as he completed 64.7 percent of his pass attempts, while totaling 2,446 yards passing with 15 touchdowns. Vaz threw for 1,480 yards and 11 touchdowns in more than 100 fewer pass attempts and made better decisions as his three interceptions were 10 fewer than Mannion. Obviously Riley will not fear going to Vaz should Mannion struggle at any point this season.
Only half of one of the more explosive receiving duos in the country will be back in Corvallis. Markus Wheaton moved on to the NFL, leaving Brandin Cooks as the primary target. It's a role Cooks should excel in after he caught 67 passes for 1,151 yards last season. Lesser used targets like Kevin Cummings (18 rec, 208 yards, TD) will be called on to line up across from Cooks. Tight end Connor Hamlett (32 rec, 403 yards, 3 TDs) could also become a larger factor.
The Beavers struggled to run the ball though and ranked 100th nationally on the ground (124.4 ypg). Starting running back Storm Woods' lingering knee issues were part of the reason, though he still managed to finish with 940 yards and 13 touchdowns. An improvement on those numbers by a now healthy Woods is anticipated.
The Beavers were a stingy and scrappy defensive squad last season. As a team they ranked third in the Pac-12 in total defense (354 ypg), while ranking among the top 30 teams in the country in scoring defense (20.6 ppg) and rushing defense (129.5 ypg).
There were some major losses in the offseason on the defensive side of the ball. The most notable of which was the departure of All-American safety Jordan Poyer.
Even with Poyer gone there are still a number of skilled and productive players returning to reclaim starting spots. Rashaad Reynolds will be the leader in the secondary now. Last season the cornerback was second on the team with 75 tackles while collecting three interceptions and a team-high 16 passes defended.
Michael Doctor (83 tackles) led the team in stops last season and will be joined by D.J. Alexander (50 tackles) in the linebacking corps, one of the keys to Oregon State's effective run defense.
Up front Scott Crichton (17.5 TFL, 9.0 sacks) was a nightmare for opposing backfields last season and returns to build on his strong sophomore campaign.